First Look: Toshiba’s European HD-DVD players

When we first saw Toshiba’s HD-XA1 HD-DVD offering, we had mixed feelings. Here, certainly, was a powerful machine – much more than just a

When we first saw Toshiba’s HD-XA1 HD-DVD offering, we had mixed feelings. Here, certainly, was a powerful machine – much more than just a DVD player with better picture quality – but crikey, it was chunky. Thankfully, first glances at Europe’s HD-XE1 suggest it has all the power in a svelte, black aluminium-clad form.Admittedly, our demo was performed on one of the US machines, but Toshiba assured us that the HD-XE1 would perform at least as well as its American cousin.  With a 1080i signal (1080p is also available) the picture and sound were spectacular; as good as any other HD sources we’ve seen so far, with superb detail and contrast levels. A comparison between a lowly Tosh SD-240E DVD player and a DVD played on the XA1 demonstrated that its internal scaling does an impressive job, too.  But saying HD-DVD picture is good is like saying the president of the USA is a bit of a cretin. The really interesting stuff – the details that could ensure HD-DVD survives in an increasingly download-friendly climate – is the interface and the extra features. Anyone who enjoys the three-DVD boxset of the latest shoddy Hollywood fare rather than its cheap single-disc variant will giggle with joy when confronted with the features available. There was so much to select from – a full screen’s worth of lists of documentaries, deleted scenes and the like were available on the Constantine disc we span. Really nifty specials include picture-in-picture audio commentaries, which make any movie feel like an in-depth documentary. And that’s just the beginning – the XE1’s Ethernet port will allow you to download additional materials (like soundtracks and themes) from the internet. Unfortunately, we didn’t see this working, but it should be online soon.The vaguely Media Center-style interface is a breeze to navigate, too, allowing you to access everything from picture and sound controls to specials and scenes without ever leaving the movie playback screen. It’s a giant leap from the unintuitive, slow menus of standard DVD. Timeline-style navigation through playing movies makes finding particular scenes in a movie a breeze, too.All in all, we’re very impressed. Expect a full review as soon as we can rip one from Toshiba’s paws.